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    Federal funds let Medicaid programs grow

    By DIANE RADO

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- Facing a tight budget year, Gov. Jeb Bush announced Thursday that the federal government has approved money to let Florida expand its health care programs for the poor.

    The announcement will mean more money for Florida's teaching hospitals, including Tampa General Hospital, and will set up the state's first mail order pharmacy program for diabetes patients on Medicaid.

    In all, the federal government's approval of three proposed expansions of Medicaid will bring Florida about $159-million a year in new federal money.

    That is small compared with the overall Medicaid budget -- $8.3-billion. But the changes will help nearly 15,000 people and 70 hospitals in Florida. And the announcement comes as Democrats and activists are criticizing Bush for pushing tax breaks when poor people face cuts in health care programs next budget year.

    The Medicaid expansions will mean $143-million more for teaching hospitals and hospitals that take care of large populations of poor people, including Tampa General. Another $15-million was approved to help nearly 9,500 poor people living in assisted living facilities and similar housing. The aid pays for their medicines, doctor's appointments and other things. Those programs are expected to gear up within a month, according to the Governor's Office.

    Also, in the next few months, about 5,000 diabetes patients in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Jacksonville and Gainesville will be able to get their insulin, pills and other supplies through the new, $860,000 mail order program approved by the federal government.

    There will be overnight delivery, and 24-hour phone lines available to the patients, said Bob Sharpe, Florida's deputy secretary of Medicaid.

    Approval should come by the end of the month for other Medicaid expansions that should bring in another $32-million to Florida.

    "We can now enrich the lives of Floridians, both young and old, in ways we could not before," said Ruben King-Shaw, secretary of Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration.

    Bush acknowledged that having a new administration in Washington helped speed the approval. "I'm happy to tell you there is favoritism for Florida," Bush said.

    Florida applied between August and October for the three programs approved by Tommy Thompson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

    "I am happy that you were among the first of all governors to challenge me to make good on my promise of better partnership and faster answers from the federal government," Thompson wrote Bush. The Florida House and Senate have been grappling with a nearly $1-billion Medicaid shortfall.

    The Medicaid budget is expected to increase next year because of the rise in clients, but the House and Senate have proposed some $600-million in cuts in specific programs to free up money for other priorities.

    Under one House proposal, there would be no money for poor adults to get eyeglasses, dentures and hearing aids. The Senate cuts a fee for doctors who take care of Medicaid patients. Both chambers cut the budget for prescription drugs for poor people, and cut Medicaid payments to hospitals.

    Gov. Bush proposed more than $700-million in cuts to specific Medicaid areas in his budget recommendations, including shifting more poor patients into health maintenance organizations that are cheaper for the state, and competitively bidding Medicaid services. At the same time, Bush proposed some $300-million in tax breaks, mostly in the intangibles tax on stocks, bonds and other investments.

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